Police Use of Facial Recognition Ruled Unlawful in World-First Case

Rights groups are celebrating after the Court of Appeal ruled that the use of facial recognition (AFR) technology by South Wales Police is unlawful, although the force may not stop future pilots.

The case was brought by Liberty and activist Ed Bridges, 37, from Cardiff, whose image had been captured twice in 2017 and 2018 as police trawled through crowds to match the images with suspects' headshots in their database.

Although the case was thrown out by the High Court, the appeals judges ruled in Bridges’ favor on three counts, including two related to a breach of his right to privacy under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

On the third count, the judges agreed that the police force had failed to satisfy itself that “everything reasonable which could be done had been done in order to make sure that the software used does not have a racial or gender bias.”

Liberty hailed the victory in what it claimed was the world’s first legal challenge to police use of AFR and called for its outright ban, adding that as many as 500,000 innocent people may have had their facial images captured by South Wales Police.

“This judgment is a major victory in the fight against discriminatory and oppressive facial recognition,” argued Liberty lawyer, Megan Goulding.

“The court has agreed that this dystopian surveillance tool violates our rights and threatens our liberties. Facial recognition discriminates against people of colour, and it is absolutely right that the court found that South Wales Police had failed in their duty to investigate and avoid discrimination.”

However, the victory could be short-lived. Although the force is not planning to take an appeal to the Supreme Court, South Wales Police chief constable Matt Jukes said after the verdict that “I am confident that this is a judgement we can work with.”

All eyes will now be on the government to push ahead with long overdue plans to draw up a statutory code of practice, as advocated by privacy regulator the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

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